By Thomas Erdbrink and Glenn Kessler
Washington Post Staff Writer
Friday, February 12, 2010; A16
TEHRAN -- Hundreds of thousands of government supporters thronged central Tehran to mark the 31st anniversary of the Islamic revolution on Thursday, as President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad reiterated that Iran had become a "nuclear state."
Ahmadinejad's remarks, along with the smothering of planned opposition rallies, appeared designed to up the ante in Iran's confrontation with the West. Despite demands for new sanctions on Iran over its nuclear ambitions, the Iranian government has made clear that it has little use for President Obama's efforts to spark a dialogue.
The Obama administration, for its part, on Thursday dismissed claims about Iran's nuclear program and declared that the Tehran government fears its own people.
Ahmadinejad made the nuclear claim in Tehran's central Azadi Square, where the president told a huge crowd of flag-waving supporters that "we have the capability to enrich uranium more than 20 percent or even 80 percent," a level that would be nearly high enough to produce a nuclear bomb, even though Tehran says that is not its intent.
"When we say that we don't build nuclear bombs, it means that we won't do that because we don't believe in having them," Ahmadinejad said. "The Iranian nation is brave enough that if one day we wanted to create an atomic bomb, we would announce it publicly and would create it."
Speaking to Western powers, he added: "We are not afraid of you."
Ahmadinejad's claim that Iran is now a "nuclear state" is a frequent refrain. The Iranian president has used the phrase or similar locutions at least eight times since his announcement April 11, 2006, that Iran had succeeded in enriching uranium.
Still, his remarks Thursday came at a time of heightened tensions with the West. Last week, he ordered Iranian scientists to begin taking part of Iran's stock of low-enriched uranium and boosting its 20 percent enrichment level in order to produce fuel for a medical research reactor. The United States and other nations negotiating with Iran had offered to swap its enriched uranium for reactor fuel, but the two sides could not reach an agreement. (Iran, experts say, does not have the capability to create the fuel rods needed for the reactor.)
In his remarks Thursday, Ahmadinejad also criticized Obama, calling his approach to Iran "disappointing." He said the U.S. president is "losing his chance" to differentiate himself from his predecessor and is "not acting properly."
In Washington, White House spokesman Robert Gibbs dismissed the Iranian claims as "based on politics, not on physics." He said that Ahmadinejad "says many things, and many of them turn out to be untrue. We do not believe they have the capability to enrich to the degree to which they now say they are enriching."
The International Atomic Energy Agency, in a confidential report this week, said its inspectors were told Wednesday that Iran would begin producing the higher-enriched uranium "within a few days." The report said Iran was processing only a nominal amount in a single cascade.
During the rallies for the anniversary, the government ordered a heavy deployment of security forces to prevent the opposition from using the occasion to stage rallies. Revolutionary Guard Corps special forces, clad in olive uniforms and black ski masks, carried assault rifles as they directed groups of soldiers, and there were unconfirmed reports of shootings.
A spokesman for opposition leader Mehdi Karroubi said that a tear gas grenade exploded in front of the former speaker of parliament and that his eyesight was damaged. Witnesses also reported clashes in the Sadeghiyeh neighborhood, where Karroubi tried to join the rallies. Plainclothes members of a paramilitary unit smashed the windows of his car, witnesses said.
International media representatives were prevented from freely covering the rally and were placed in a special area surrounded by government supporters holding up posters bearing images of Iran's supreme leader, Ayatollah Ali Khamenei.
"What problems do the anti-government protesters have in the Islamic republic?" asked Zahra Farahani, who had come to Tehran by bus from the Shiite holy city of Qom.
"There are no problems here. They are influenced by foreigners and must return to the path of our dear leader," she said as girls around her waved Iran's green, white and red flag.
Opposition leader Mir Hossein Mousavi also tried to join the government rally, but security forces and people with batons prevented him from entering the main route, according to his Web site, Kalame.org. His wife, Zahra Rahnavard, was allegedly beaten on the head in Sadeghiyeh by government supporters.
In the days leading to the anniversary, Internet service in Iran was largely disrupted, with Google's Gmail service barely working. Opposition supporters, who are largely ignored by state media, use e-mail and social networking sites to spread their news and organize rallies.
"I can get around the firewalls, but many people can't," an office manager said, speaking on the condition of anonymity for fear of retribution. "They do not really know what is going on."
The opposition suffered a setback in its failure to stage a significant presence on Thursday. Opposition leaders had predicted that they would flood the pro-government rally.
"It is an unprecedented and overwhelming step, using force to intimidate their own people and to restrict freedom of assembly and freedom of expression," State Department spokesman P.J. Crowley told reporters. "It is clear that the Iranian government fears its own people."
Kessler reported from Washington. Staff writer William Branigin in Washington contributed to this report.